Editing for Grammarphobes: Learning from the Masters


Today begins Bibliophilic Blather’s celebration of Women’s History Month. Each week in March, we will take time from grammar rules and focus on another vital part of writing: studying great writers.

Writers are readers, and most of the time they do so with a rather critical eye. What worked in that novel? Why did I enjoy it so much? What did I hate about it? What can I learn from this writing style that I can incorporate in my work? This is how we grow. 

Virginia Woolf revolutionized the novel by developing stream of consciousness, which allowed her to depict the inner lives of her characters in intimate detail. Before this, stories relied strictly on external happenings and plot devices. Characters did things, but we never knew why.

In her essays and reviews, she frequently attacked those books that discussed the superficial while omitting the essence of character. Often, these stories were told in a linear form. First this happened, then this, and this, and so on.

Stream of Consciousness
But what if a story were to be revealed in a more abstract way? A snippet here. A flashback there. All of the pieces coming together to form a complete picture, much in the same way abstract paintings give overall impressions of their subjects.

Her most experimental work, The Waves, does this through interior monologue and recurring imagery that traces the inner lives of six characters. Readers are shown how each individual experiences life, which, when combined, creates a total picture.

Stream of consciousness concentrates on the human mental-emotional process. It uses free psychological association rather than linear storytelling.

One of Woolf’s most famous works, Mrs. Dalloway, explores the human experience of time, taking place for one full day in June 1923. It also examines how external circumstances impinge on consciousness.

Not only was Virginia Woolf a literary genius, she also was an indie author. She and husband, Leonard, bought a printing press in 1917 and formed Hogarth Press, named after their house. Hogarth Press also published the work of Katherine Mansfield, E.M. Forester and T.S. Eliot. Virginia and Leonard’s friends, known as The Bloomsbury Group, included literary giants such as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, E.M. Forester and Gertrude Stein.

Woolf was a prolific essayist and reviewer. A Room of One’s Own is based on two lectures she delivered at Newnham and Girton colleges in October 1928. It addresses the status of women, particularly women artists. Among other things, she ponders, What if Shakespeare had an equally talented sister? What would have become of her? It is amazing how relevant her insights still are today. If you have not read it, I strongly urge you to pick up a copy.

It is not a stretch by any means to say the novels we write today would not be possible without Virginia Woolf’s ingenuity and brilliant mind. Non-linear plot structures. Character development. She provided the groundwork for writers to create full and interesting novels. 

"Literature is no one’s private ground, literature is common ground; let us trespass freely and fearlessly and find our own way for ourselves." 
— Virginia Woolf

Harmon,William and C. Hugh Holman. A Handbook to Literature. 5th ed. New York: MacMillian, 1986. Print.


"Virginia Woolf." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011. Web. 09 Mar. 2011, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/647786/Virginia-Woolf.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. New York: Harcourt, 1929. Print.


Kae said…
A good post, Karen. Thanks. I learned a lot.
Lovely piece, Karen. I'd also recommend Woolf's collected diaries: A Writer's Diary. I'd say it was a must read not only for those interested in her, but for the writers among us. Inspiring and consoling in equal measure.
Thanks for reading, Kae.

Deborah, I will check out Woolf's diaries. Thanks for the recommendation and for reading.

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